Joan Rivers, the Legendary Comedienne, Dead at 81

Part 1: How this iconic and often controversial comic went from performing stand-up to hosting her own shows.
8:03 | 09/05/14

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Transcript for Joan Rivers, the Legendary Comedienne, Dead at 81
Good evening. Tonight, tributes pouring in for a comic legend. Joan rivers died in New York today at the age of 81. Now, as the investigation begins into the exact cause of her death, we remember a comedienne who shattered the glass ceiling in a decades'-long career, filled with equal parts comedy, controversy and cosmetic surgery. Joan promised she would never retire. And tonight, she left us wanting more. Tonight's show is like a pair of panties that is shared by Christina Hendrix and Lindsay lohan. Reporter: This was Joan rivers on TV just nine days ago. So full of life. Full of jokes. Amber's outfit is almost as tacky as amber's seat was when she got up at the end of the show. Reporter: Still making people laugh. The iconic, groundbreaking and often controversial comic. Oh, it's the next-to-last show. Who gives a ? Reporter: Who managed to remain relevant for a half-century, died today. Less than a week after being rushed by ambulance to Mt. Sinai hospital in New York City. She suffered cardiac arrest, during throat surgery at an outpatient clinic. Daughter, Melissa, broke the news of her mother's passing to the world in a heartfelt statement. My mother's greatest joy in life was to make people laugh. Although that is difficult to do right now. The world reacted to rivers' death. In Hollywood, with tributes on the walk of fame. To the twittersphere. Katy Perry tweeting, what's the point in wearing these costumes if Joan's not here to rip them apart. And Sarah Silverman said, my heart is ripped apart. For decades, she entertained us with that signature line. Can we talk? Reporter: She was a woman who spent a lifetime performing. From her start in standup. 30 years old, you're not married, you're an old made. A man, he's 90 years old, he's not married. He's a catch. Reporter: To drawing blood on the red carpet as "The fashion police." That's a communion press for shut she just reminds me of the girl in high school that spent four years in the bathroom smoking. Reporter: To her own reality show, co-starring her daughter. Why am I the last to know. Reporter: It was this performance on "The tonight show" with Johnny Carson in 1965, that rivers got her first big break. Our own David Muir sat down with her in 2009 and took us back to the racy joke that changed her life forever. A man doesn't want to come me after a hard day in the office and find some sexy wife lying on the coffee table saying, tiger, tiger. Yes, he does. Right then, changed my life. Weren't you the first and only permanent host? I was the first permanent guest host, man, woman or child. Reporter: Ms. Rivers broke into an all-male fraternity, at a time when many thought women weren't funny. She took the stage and was just as harsh and raunchy as the men. The only way I get heavy breathing from my husband is when he's having an asthma attack. Reporter: She also made herself the punch line, that gave her a uniquely female voice. This is all rubber. Let me tell you. It's very good because if I fall down, bounce right back up. Reporter: Years later, she thanked Johnny Carson for putting her in the spotlight. Edgar, your husband, who made this book happen. And to Johnny Carson, who made it all happen. That's very sweet of you. That's nice. Of course, I didn't make it all happen. Oh, yes, you did. I can only take credit for putting you on the show. But I did say one thing that night which I have seldom said on the night over the years. You finished the routine. And you were devastating. And the audience was falling apart. And I said, you're going to be a big star. That's something you don't say. It sounds like -- And I looked behind me. I couldn't believe you were talking to me. It's "The Late Show," starring Joan rivers. Reporter: But her success was about to drive a wedge between them. As soon as I got the fox show I called Johnny. He hung up on me. Never, never spoke to me again. Joan rivers. Reporter: Her show was canceled after just seven months. But Carson would ban her for life from his show, for daring to compete with him. And the cancellation was followed by personal tragedy. Her husband and long-time manager, Edgar Rosenberg, would kill himself three months later. A tragedy that rivers, in classic style, turned into comedy. He left me all of the money on the condition, I have to visit him every, single day. So, I had him cremated and had him sprinkled in Neiman Marcus. I go there twice a day. You never saw him so much. Never saw him so much. Weekends, holidays. I'm banging on the door. I got to see Edgar. He's near the Gucci counter. He would go through great pain and great anger. And with my husband, I had both barrels. I'm still not over his suicide. I'm still furious with him. Son of a bitch. I'll kill him. You left me with no money, a child that was -- no career. And you checked out? Go Yourself. Reporter: She would soon turn the depths of her pain into the height of success. Her daytime talk show beat out Oprah Winfrey in 1990 for the Emmy. And the winner is -- I'm shaking. Joan rivers. Two years ago, I couldn't get a job in this business. I could not get a job. I'd's good he's not here, my husband, Edgar Rosenberg, said you can turn things around. Reporter: She used that throughout her life. Today, her life long friend, Larry king, paid tribute to her. She was consistently funny. And we ought to thank people who make us laugh. They add a lot to our lives. We could appreciate those who give us the gift of laughter. Reporter: She managed to defy her critics and nature itself. Becoming an early aficionado of plastic surgery. No one did your eyes in those days. People were saying, what happened to you? I said, the baby punched me in the eyes. And they bought it. People were so stupid in those days. Poor Melissa. Reporter: She allowed cameras into the process, on her show, "Joan & Melissa." Do you think I need a face-lift? You could make a purse. Reporter: Barbara Walters talked to her about it. You were very courageous on your reality show. No makeup, you show yourself. No makeup. Bandages. Let's go. You didn't have to do that. Why did you do it? I think I want people to see what it really was about. Reporter: Before another plastic surgery procedure on her reality show, "Joan and Melissa," she faced her own mortality head-on. If anything happens, Melissa, I'm no chicken. I've had a great life. An amazing life. If I die this morning, nobody would say, so young. You're a terrific person. Cooper's fine. You're all fine. I've had an amazing life. If it ended right now, amazing. Reporter: Always eager to laugh through her pain. It didn't stop her from doing what she loved most. Somebody told me, every laugh is like a small vacation for someone. Reporter: A fitting mission statement from a woman who led a truly extraordinary American life.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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